Historical perspective of Mendelssohn’s Elijah Oratorio

Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio “Elijah” holds a significant place in the history of music and oratorio composition. Here is a historical perspective on the work:
Image of The Fresco Prophet Elijah

Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” is a majestic piece of work that compels the listener to want to hear time and again. To better understand this complex oratorio it is good to put it into perspective both from a narrative and historical sense. Following are some brief notes that may assist in this.

19th-Century Context

“Elijah” was composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1846, during the Romantic era of music. This period emphasized emotional expression, vivid storytelling, and a return to folk and nationalistic elements in music.

Revival of Oratorio

Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” played a crucial role in the revival of the oratorio genre in the 19th century. Oratorios had been a popular form of sacred music in the Baroque era, with composers like Handel being prominent figures in this genre. However, by the 19th century, the oratorio had lost some of its popularity.

Influence of Bach and Handel

Mendelssohn was deeply influenced by the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. He is credited with helping to reintroduce Bach’s music to the public through his famous performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” in 1829. Handel’s oratorios also had a profound impact on Mendelssohn’s composition style, and this influence is evident in “Elijah.”

Biblical Narrative

“Elijah” is based on the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah, making it a biblical oratorio. This choice of subject matter was in line with the Romantic fascination with literature and history, which often found expression in music.

Nationalism and Religion

Mendelssohn, a German composer of Jewish heritage, was a devout Christian. “Elijah” reflects his deep religious convictions and his desire to bridge the gap between his Jewish roots and Christian faith. This aspect of the oratorio speaks to the broader themes of religious tolerance and understanding.

Performance History

“Elijah” premiered in Birmingham, England, in 1846, conducted by the composer himself. It was met with tremendous success and received widespread acclaim. Subsequent performances in other European cities solidified its reputation as a masterpiece.


Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” remains one of the most frequently performed oratorios to this day. Its enduring popularity is a testament to its powerful storytelling, memorable melodies, and emotional depth.

Influence on Later Composers

Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” influenced later composers, including Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák, who also composed oratorios inspired by biblical narratives. It set a high standard for the genre and inspired future generations of composers.

In conclusion, Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” is not only a significant work within the composer’s oeuvre but also a pivotal piece in the broader history of oratorio composition. Its enduring appeal and thematic richness continue to captivate audiences and musicians alike, making it a lasting testament to Mendelssohn’s artistic vision.


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